Update: The two posts on this subject have been combined for a short post at The Atlantic. Thanks again for the thoughtful feedback.
Thanks to all of you who left comments in response to the recent story out of Richmond, Virginia, about the decorative art that was attached to three statues along Monument Avenue. The goal of the protester was to remind visitors and others that Richmond’s history extends beyond its preoccupation with its Confederate and may have also wanted to show that the monuments in question were erected at a time when African Americans were barred from local government and the kinds of conversations that directly shape how a local community remembers its collective past.
The post (as well as the online news reports) brought out some very strong views, but I am especially intrigued by those readers who not only approve of the additions of the plaques, but with the removal of the monuments. One reader had this to say:
I’m suggesting that’s an overly narrow framing of the issue, which should be: who gets to decide what messages take up our public space TODAY? Your view strikes me as giving too much privilege to the white supremacists who put up all the monuments in the first place. Just because they had that power once doesn’t entitle their “monuments” to deference for all time. I respect your scholarly approach to this, but I disagree – I’d rather see these monuments removed to a “Museum of Racism”.
I thought I would take just a few moments to clarify my position. First, I don’t believe that monuments to the past necessarily warrant an indefinite life span. I can think of any number of examples where I believe the removal of monuments and memorials are justified from the toppling of statues of King George III at the beginning of the American Revolution to the pulling down of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In those two examples, however, their removal functioned as part of the end of a government or revolution. I’m sure we could just easily come up with other examples justifying the removal of a historical marker of one sort or another.
In the case of Richmond’s Monument Avenue and most other public historical sites, however, I have trouble seeing what removal accomplishes given the other options available. And it it is the fact that there are other options available that makes this so difficult for me to understand. For me, Richmond’s memorial landscape functions as an organic whole. The Arthur Ashe Monument only works because it is on the same street as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The same holds true for the new additions to the grounds of the state capital, the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar and countless other places in the broader Richmond area. Touring these sites together opens up a unique window not simply on the history of the Civil War and race relations, but on the history of American democracy. The sites themselves track the range of voices that had to fight to earn the right to engage in public discussions concerning what and how Richmond’s past is remembered. In short, they track the history of a community’s values. Most importantly, a community demonstrates its willingness not to brush aside controversial and/or embarrassing aspects of its past.
The Robert E. Lee monument is one of my favorite places to bring students. It allows me to share stories about the history of Lee, the development of Richmond in the late 19th century, Jim Crow, and historical memory. It’s not an academic exercise, but about trying to help shape reflective and caring citizens. Teaching history and visiting historic sites is, in part, about learning how to empathize and appreciating the extent to which the past shapes who we take ourselves to be. For better or for worse they are part of our story, but each of us has the choice as to how to engage these places. We can express outrage over their existence, reflect carefully about their history, place a thoughtful marker to make a statement or just let them be and appreciate their aesthetic qualities.